Breathe

How has the meaning and urgencies of breathing changed and been challenged during our current moment?

by Marty Wood

May 2nd, 2021

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What does it mean to draw a breath, to give life, to conjure worlds? Our moment is defined by an ongoing global pandemic of a novel virus that attacks the lungs and a world thrown into social, political, and economic chaos. These prevailing crises extend inward and outward; from individual bodies to the entire world, into breathless struggles over the future, of justice, climate, and self care. Here, a devil's dictionary of sorts as the fight to breathe defines our moment.

Exhaustion

The struggle to breathe is real, everyone is exhausted . Anxiety, panic, and fear are part of daily life in our current moment, expressed best by the term of expulsion, to let it all out, emotional waste removed from our bodies. If what we feel is a shortness of breath, how do we reclaim breath in its longness?

If what we feel is a shortness of breath, how do we reclaim breath in its longness?

Pranayama

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Making what is invisible, visible and what is automatic (that is to say something our bodies must do) into a directed process. A conscious awareness of the mechanisms that sustain life. To seize control of the means of respiration and to draw focus on the presence(s) of the present. As Donna J Haraway might say to "stay with the trouble."

Sigh

 

—to emit a long, deep, audible breath expressing sadness, relief, tiredness, or a similar feeling.

A sign of relief or a quiet protest. Collectively, we must let it out.

A sign of relief or a quiet protest. Collectively, we must let it out.

"I can't breathe"

The dying words of Eric Garner. A man who had the life choked out of him by NYPD became a rallying cry of Black Lives Matter—an emerging social justice movement beginning in 2014 and continuing today. 1 Not only in the cries for racial justice and radical transformation, but a slogan that (as Bifo put it), "In many ways, these words express the general sentiment of our times: physical and psychological breathlessness everywhere, in the megacities choked by pollution, in the precarious social condition of the majority of exploited workers, in the pervading fear of violence, war, and aggression." 2

The right and struggle to breathe has an urgency highlighted not only by an out of control disease but the disease of racism, classism, casteism, and gendered violence. Achille Mbembe says—

"There is no doubt that the skies are closing in. Caught in the stranglehold of injustice and inequality, much of humanity is threatened by a great chokehold..." 3

This chokehold is not only at the hands of state agents but also through violence toward the environment which manifests in our bodies, cities, and hinterlands (and concentrates wickedly in the life worlds of the dispossessed).

Newman, Andy.”The Death of Eric Garner, and the Events That Followed.” New York Times.  DEC. 3, 2014

  https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2014/12/04/nyregion/04garner-timeline.html

Berardi, Franco "Bifo" Breathing: Chaos and Poetry. Semiotext(e), October 2018

Berardi, Franco "Bifo" Breathing: Chaos and Poetry. Semiotext(e), October 2018

Mbembe, Achille. "The Universal Right to Breathe." 13 April 2020 https://critinq.wordpress.com/2020/04/13/the-universal-right-to-breathe/

Soroche

The head doorman in my building retired early to pursue his dreams of living in Colombia. He and his wife bought an apartment and leased a storefront to open an internet cafe and computer repair shop in Bogota. He loved the culture and change of pace from New York, but his body started to rebel against the thin air. It is a tough life, to live above the clouds.

A sign of relief or a quiet protest. Collectively, we must let it out.

Within a year he was back in NYC, asking for his job back. Soon it was like he had never left.

I, too have been living at altitude having relocated to Colorado after spending the first wave in NYC, terrified. Arrived, also terrified, cat in tow and never sure if my breathing was long COVID, anxiety, or just the shift in altitude. Not used to being winded, every stair climb raising concerns over when my time would come.

 

Conspiracy Means to Breathe Together

Although the exact origins of this phrase are hazy, it was purportedly used as a protest slogan painted during the Chicago uprisings of 1968 tied to the DNC and the widespread revulsion to the Vietnam War. It appeared the following year in a now-forgotten Andy Warhol print. 4 Now of course conspiracy has a different ring to it, maligned in a new way. But breathing together is what humans do. Our ideologies and emotions are atmospheric. The prevailing winds of action and reaction as we breathe it all in.

Planetary Emphysema

Wildfires turned the sky orange, yellow, a false midnight at noon. The forests were screaming as the apocalyptic horizon spread. From the catastrophic fires in Australia 5 to millions of acres burning across the American West, we're choking on the facts that the climate is stuttering and our activities have set the stage for destruction. Add to this the continued and unsustainable land clearing in the Amazon and elsewhere and the lungs of the planet are directly under attack. 6

Warhol, Andy. Conspiracy catalog entry. National Gallery of Scotland.

  https://www.nationalgalleries.org/art-and-artists/93228/conspiracy-means-breathe-together

The Australia Wildfire in Pictures. New York Times. Jan. 3, 2020

   https://www.nytimes.com/2020/01/10/world/australia/australia-wildfires-photos.html

Benson, Michael. “Watching Earth Burn” New YorkTimes. Dec. 28, 2020

  https://www.nytimes.com/2020/12/28/opinion/climate-change-earth.html

We must reclaim the lungs of our world with a view to forging new ground.

If, indeed, COVID-19 is the spectacular expression of the planetary impasse in which humanity finds itself today, then it is a matter of no less than reconstructing a habitable earth to give all of us the breath of life. We must reclaim the lungs of our world with a view to forging new ground. Humankind and biosphere are one. Alone, humanity has no future. Are we capable of rediscovering that each of us belongs to the same species, that we have an indivisible bond with all life? Perhaps that is the question—the very last— before we draw our last dying breath."

Mbembe, Achille. "The Universal Right to Breathe." 13 April 2020

Mbembe, Achille. "The Universal Right to Breathe." 13 April 2020 https://critinq.wordpress.com/2020/04/13/the-universal-right-to-breathe/

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From the Editor

Aastha D